As a Westerner who has become a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist
lama, I have devoted over twenty five years of my life in spiritual
practice, establishing meditation centers and monasteries, and teaching
others how to further their own practice. Helping to bring a rich religious
tradition to the West has been exciting, gratifying, and very meaningful
for me. However, when a religion makes a transition from one culture to
another, there is fertile ground for all sorts of new developments, both
positive and negative. Awareness of these issues can become extremely
As a leader, I wish to be aware of my own responsibility in
helping people to find themselves and experience that which is wholesome,
useful, and beneficial, while sidestepping the rest. Great good has been
brought forth by new religious groups in recent decades. Yet, I am
disturbed by certain patterns of abuses that routinely occur along the
spiritual path, which is why I am writing this article and researching this
subject. All groups exhibit certain characteristic problems. If and when
they become destructive and damaging, these characteristics are genuine
cause for concern.
When I first began teaching Buddhism six years ago, the Dalai
Lama himself told me not to be afraid to make mistakes, but to continue to
learn from them. He added," Be creative. Each decision you make ought to be
motivated by compassion. Seek to contribute to others, not to convert
others. Motivation and intention are determining factors in the result of
our actions. Buddha said, 'As we think, so we become.'"
We are all aware of the dangers of placing anyone or anything
upon a pedestal and the disillusionment that almost inevitably ensues. Few
today are ignorant of the dangers and corrupting influence of dogma,
dependence, and the misuse of power. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute
power corrupts absolutely," Lord Acton wrote. Sectarianism, insularity, and
aggressive proselytizing can easily turn into fanaticism, authoritarianism,
and even fascism. Yet are we as aware of the more subtle, almost addictive
joys of believing, of joining, and the too-often attendant sorrows and
disappointments? Are we aware of the seductions of surrendering ourselves
to something seemingly greater than us, of the security and comfort of
belonging, of conforming, of feeling part of things?
The more deeply we experience and realize our own inalienable
connectedness and integral place in the universe, the freer and more
consciously aware we can be regarding what we do in life, and whom we
choose to associate with, for how long, and why. The less conscious we are,
the more the unacknowledged and unknown, dark forces in our psyche drive
us; often driving us where we might not wish to go.
We have been through an intense era of social change that has
given rise to alternatives and new forms of all kinds. The cover article in
the Nov. 28th, 1994, Newsweek was entitled "The Search for the Sacred:
America's Quest for Spiritual Meaning." The magazine reported: "Fifty-eight
percent of Americans polled feel the need to experience spiritual growth."
It seems safe to say that most people are seeking something. The emergence
of new groups and intentional communities has doubtless accomplished far
more good than harm. But how, where, and with whom we explore our spiritual
and personal growth remains, as ever, extraordinarily important. Along with
the flourishing spiritual marketplace come abusive gurus, exploitative
teachers, messiahs, prophets, therapists, and mind-controlling groups. In
fact, most of us routinely participate in some form or other of cultic
behavior: repressing dissent; devaluing outsiders; depending too much on
leaders and authority figures; seeking totalistic solutions to existential
problems; feeling superior and even self-righteous; resisting the wish of
leave-takers to depart, etc..
We must learn from the past if we do not want to keep repeating
our mistakes. For a sane, healthy, and harmonious future to be possible, I
think that we must be very honest with ourselves and each other, and
engender leadership (not merely followership) in others, bringing out the
best in each and all of us.
In my endeavor to learn more about the mostly unexamined dark
side of the spiritual marketplace, I have become aware of Steven Hassan,
author of the well-known book Combatting Cult Mind Control. Steve was
deceptively recruited into a front group of the Moon organization in the
early 1970s and spent more than two years in the cult as one of its
American leaders. After a serious car accident and numerous days of
counseling, he came to realize that the Moon organization was, in reality,
very different from what he wanted to believe it was. He made the decision
to leave the organization and expose its illegal and unethical activities.
He is now a licensed mental health counselor in Boston and has worked for
nearly two decades to help educate the public about the dangers of
destructive mind control cults. His work also involves helping individuals
and their families heal from abusive involvements. He is also no stranger
to spirituality and to alternatives to mainstream religion, being someone
who values the spirit and regularly practices meditation and prayer.
Some groups may feel threatened by scientific research on cultic
behavior and mind control (thought-reform, brainwashing, hypnosis)
techniques. They need not feel that way, if they behave ethically and
provide choice without undue, coercive influence. Many scholars and
researchers in this field, like ourselves, respect religious beliefs and
religious systems and can appreciate diversity, endorse basic human rights,
and support individuals and groups following their own way.
As a full time member of a religious order, I personally have
found Steve's perspective, work, and experience of immense interest, being
both fascinating and beneficial. This sort of diagnostic mental health
approach to the actions of groups and individuals--rather than focusing on
their purported beliefs--seems quite relevant in understanding what is
happening in society and in our own minds today regarding various new
It is difficult, if not impossible, to objectively evaluate a
belief system from within it. Yet it can often seem unfair to judge belief
systems from the point of view of an outside observer. Most human beings
uphold blatant irrational beliefs, for better or for worse. Better that we
scrutinize ourselves and our own groups regarding our own weaknesses and
learn from them rather than have them blow up in our faces later.
Dr. Herbert Guenther, the foremost contemporary Buddhist scholar,
uses the term cultic when describing the behavior of certain early
followers of the Buddha, who mistakenly worshipped the man rather than the
truth of his message and the enlightenment he embodied and taught. The
historical Buddha himself forbade his followers from making images of him.
In the sixth century BC, the historical Buddha said:
" Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching.
Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the
words. Rely not on theory, but on experience.Do not believe in
anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in
traditions because they have been handed down for many
generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and
rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written
in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the
authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and
analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is
conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept
it and live up to it."
Kalama Sutra (ancient Buddhist text)
Lest we misunderstand each other, we must remember that the words
we use each have different associations for each of us. Concepts are not
reality, but a mere shadow of it; the map is not the territory. I also want
to caution you not to become blinded by the truth and power of words
either. I am aware of at least one non-buddhist destructive group which
uses this same quote from Buddha and uses it to recruit people into a state
of blind obedience and servitude. In order for Buddha's words to have real
meaning, they must be applied behaviorally on a daily basis.
I think that if we can enjoy authentic public discourse and free
inquiry into the matters that concern us, we must endeavor in our
discussions to explore, to know for ourselves, and to communicate how
things actually are - if we are to live a sane, righteous, and even a
decent life. While seeking truth, let us not overlook the simple virtues of
honesty and ethical behavior. Then even stumbling blocks can become
stepping stones along the way.
The Buddha exhorts us "to be a lamp unto ourselves, that one's
innate purity of heart is the sole refuge."I hope that the following pages
will elucidate some of the spiritual issues that are part of an ongoing
discussion about freedom, democracy, and human rights today.
Introduction by Steven Hassan
Whenever the subject of mind control comes up, an almost
inevitable discussion ensues about family systems, advertising,
salespeople, the military, and the even the Catholic Church. A great
confusion currently exists concerning how to make meaningful distinctions.
I have heard people say time and time again that "everything is mind
Overgeneralizations like this obscure important distinctions. As
a person who has spent almost two decades researching and considering this
topic, I offer the following thoughts.
All influence processes can be visualized as falling somewhere
along a continuum. In one direction of the continuum, mind control
techniques can be regarded as positive and constructive, promoting
understanding and choice while respecting an individual's integrity. In the
other direction, mind control is regarded as destructive and constricts
understanding and choice while undermining personal integrity. Since mind
control techniques are not inherently good or evil, they can be used
ethically and practically to enhance our lives, expand choices, and to
cultivate our creativity and individuality.
These techniques can also be used to destroy individuality, stunt
personal growth, and create virtual slaves, as exemplified by Jim Jones,
David Koresh, and Adolf Hitler. People can be deceptively manipulated and
indoctrinated to distrust their ability to feel, to think, and to make
mature decisions. Destructive cults want to control people to enable them
to expand their temporal power and raise money. They exist to serve
totalistic dictators, not to serve the people. They desire to rule through
power, not with the power of love. Charismatic leaders often stray into
temptation to exploit their power over others in dangerous ways.
The locus of control for the use of mind control techniques
should lie within our selves, not with some external authority figure. True
spirituality demands personal awareness and responsibility. The right to
believe whatever you want should be upheld. However, behaviors must be
scrutinized in order to protect human liberty. Behaviorally, all
relationships and involvements can be evaluated by objective criteria such
as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (available at
any library or through Amnesty International).
The position that religious groups should not be scrutinized is
most vigorously promoted by organizations that have notoriously bad
histories of abuse. They have spent large amounts of money in public
relations campaigns and have even funded publications and conferences to
support their positions. They have also expended great effort to do
propaganda campaigns to attack former members and critics in an effort to
neutralize the dissemination of factual information. I have personally been
subjected to incredible harassment, with extraordinary lies manufactured
about me that I kidnap and even torture people to renounce their religious
beliefs. While I have been subjected to nuisance law suits, systematic
attempts to character assassinate me, and efforts to intimidate me to stop
my criticisms, I refuse to be silent. I choose to exercise my First
Amendment right to speak freely, and I offer proof for what I say. I
suppose that I should feel good that destructive cults attack me so
blatantly as proof that I am being effective. On another extreme, I am put
down by some people who dislike the fact that I believe in and publicly
defend spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. Some people
angrily tell me that all religion is bad and all religious leaders are
dishonest. Those people, it seems, have had some really bad experiences
and, in my opinion, have "thrown the baby out with the bath water."It is
lamentable that so many people have had such bad experiences. It appears
that they are afraid to trust anything that can't be analyzed and proven
"scientifically."Their capacity to fully develop, take risks, and grow are
seriously diminished. I feel sorry for people who have adopted a rigid
posture toward life which will only validate an analytic, linear model for
understanding. Without imagination, wonder, and trust in non-analytic,
intuitive ways of knowing, people can become cynical, defensive and even
I know that fasting, silence, solitude, sleep deprivation, and
other techniques have long been used by different religious traditions. I
believe they can be very useful and liberating in terms of unfreezing one's
own habitual conditioning. They become unethical and destructive when they
are used in combination with deception and a diminution of personal choice
Due to my own cult experience, I have had to do some very intense
personal reflection. I have had to sort out the good experiences from the
bad while a member of the Moon cult. In retrospect, I can say without a
doubt that a good deal of my personal spiritual experience was valid and
had a beneficial impact on my development. As a result, I have had to
really examine myself thoroughly and consciously evaluate my beliefs and
actions. Fortunately, my core spirituality preceded my Moonie
indoctrination, and so when I left that group, I had some basic beliefs to
return to as a kind of stable base. For example, I believe that love is
stronger than fear and that truth is stronger than lies.
My own spiritual path has shown me the importance of balance and
the necessity of being in touch with your thoughts and feelings. I believe
that true spiritual growth demands awareness and responsibility and not
just blind submission to another human being or to the dogma of some unseen
deity. I have come to the conclusion that, for me, spiritual traditions
that focus on healing the mind/body relationship and on the inseparable
relationship between the sacred and the profane, rather than fostering a
split of mind/body brings more satisfying results. What I mean by this is
acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and needs rather than
denying them or pretending that they do not exist. For me, what makes sense
is wholeness, not fragmentation. Love rather than fear and guilt should be
the prime motivator. I choose to believe in a basically friendly universe,
rather than a hostile universe. Lacking an objective, absolute reference
point for "truth,"I prefer to believe in the goodness of life because it
feels "right"and because the alternative would be too bleak. Of course, I
believe that there are many legitimate paths to developing one's
spirituality. I believe that it is up to each person to take responsibility
for his or her own life.
Therefore, contrary to the disinformation put out against me by
destructive cults, I am very liberal and open minded about new religions.
However, just because it is new doesn't make it healthy or bone fide.
Likewise, the more extreme the claim is by the leader and the doctrine, the
more caution I recommend before becoming involved. For example, just
because a person claims to be the most spiritually advanced being on earth
in the past 25,000 years doesn't make it so. There are so many psychics,
mediums, and channelers today who are making claims of special wisdom and
spiritual knowledge. People must learn to be more discerning and to not
merely accept passively. I believe if an individual is legitimate, he or
she will be honest and forthright in all communications and actions. An
atmosphere where questions and skepticism are accepted and even encouraged
is a good sign of a healthy group. Also, there will be no heavy pressure
for quick and full commitments. A spiritual leader will exemplify those
qualities that show love, compassion, and respect. I have been impressed by
Western spiritual leaders like Lama Surya Das and Jack Kornfield who
demonstrate through their actions that their quest for enlightened living
and healthy group process is achievable today.
I also strongly recommend that periodically;at least once or
twice each year; a "vacation" be taken to step out of your environment and
"reality test." Ask yourself: When I started doing "x"what were my goals?
What were my expectations? Where did I think I would be in one year? Five
years, Ten years? If I knew then (at the beginning of "x") what I know now,
would I still do "x"? If not, why not? What would you do differently? If I
hadn't done "x," what would I have likely done? Also, if I had a magic wand
and I could be doing now what I really would like to do, what would that
In the following pages, I have:
* written a series of assessment questions which anyone can use to
evaluate spiritual groups.
* summarized the four basic components of mind control from my book
Combatting Cult Mind Control to help provide a basis for evaluation.
* summarized the three stages of mind control by Kurt Lewin as
described by Edgar Schein in Coercive Persuasion (Norton,1961).
* summarized Robert Jay Lifton's eight themes of thought reform based
on his research of the Communist "re-education"programs of Mao
Tse-tung. These were taken from Chapter 22 of his seminal book Thought
Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
I hope that reading and thinking about these perspectives will
help to shed light on the behaviors of individuals and organizations.
(Additionally, you might want to read a copy of the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
Unless we all acknowledge our questions now, they will remain
like skeletons in our psyches until the day they are dealt with and
resolved. They will never go away permanently, even if we do years of
chanting, praying, affirmations, and other spiritual practices. We must use
wisdom, gentleness, self inquiry, and courage to guide us in upholding our
Unselfishness, kindness, gentleness, and compassion should be a
basic living principle, not just an ideal. When individuals claim to be
spiritually more developed, and put themselves in the role of guru, swami,
master, prophet, these virtues must be consistently demonstrated. We must
not allow our desires to know "Absolute Truth"to blind us from observing
obvious discrepancies in our teacher's behaviors. We must become sensitive
to the tactic that illigitimate leaders use by turning our questions or
comments around and using them blame or shame us into obedience. A
legitimate question or concern demands a respectful response, not evasion
We must also not look at the past and traditions blindly, but
with an appreciation for the present and a clear vision for our future on
the spaceship Earth we cohabit.
Questions to help the assessment process
1.Who is the leader?
* What are his/her background and qualifications?
* Have you relied solely on trust that all of the information you were
given is true or have you done independent investigation?
* Do you feel pressure to accept and not question at all?
* Is it possible that there are misrepresentations or falsehoods?
* Is there external corroboration for extraordinary claims of
accomplishment or are they simply his/her say-so?
* If "miracles"have been performed, can they be replicated under open
observation or even under scientific conditions?
* Are there other explanations for the "miracles,"such as magic tricks,
* If there is a former leader or member, have you sought him or her out
to hear for yourself critical information?
* If not, are you afraid to trust your ability to discern the
truthfulness of what you learn?
* If you find yourself saying that you don't care if there are major
deceptions, ask yourself if you knew this information before you
became involved, would you have even bothered to make a commitment of
time and money?
2.Are there exclusive claims made to wisdom, knowledge, love, and
* If so, the burden of proof is on the leader to demonstrate his or her
superiority, not on members to disprove it. A truly
"developed"spiritual being exudes love, compassion, and humility. Any
person who claims to be "superior"but does not practice what they
preach is of questionable character. There is never incongruency
between words and deeds. A person who uses fear and phobia
indoctrination to control followers demonstrates insecurity and lack
of spiritual maturity.
3. Is total submission and obedience required?
* Any relationship that demands giving up one's personal integrity and
conscience is dangerous and leads to totalitarianism. Be wary of those
who advocate "the ends justify the means,"especially when it clearly
serves their own self-interest. Also, make sure that your desire "to
believe"doesn't simply activate the common psychological defense
mechanisms: denial, rationalization, justification, and wishful
thinking. If a doctrine is true or a person is truly spiritually
advanced, they will stand up to the scrutiny of objective evaluation.
If they do not prove themselves, they are probably not worthy of your
commitment and devotion.
4. Does he/ she have a criminal record, a legacy of allegations
against him/her or a history of misconduct?
* If there are allegations of misconduct against the leader, the
responsible follower must seek out the negative information and the
sources of that information to evaluate the truth. If a leader claims
to be celibate and allegations are made that the leader engaged in
inappropriate sex, this is an extreme violation of integrity. It must
be investigated vigorously. It is never appropriate for teachers,
therapists, or spiritual masters to take advantage of a power
differential over followers. This is especially true in the area of
sexuality. It is grossly unethical to engage in sexual relations with
someone who has placed their trust in as a teacher/advisor/master.
Many followers are incredibly vulnerable to this and unable to resist
sexual intimacy. Anyone should be able to say "no."
* Is he or she a "trust bandit,"stealing hearts, souls, minds, bodies,
and pocketbooks for his or her own ends?
5. Does the leader demonstrate psychological problems and awareness of
* Does the leader have addictions to power, drugs, alcohol, sex, even
television or shopping?
* Does the leader have emotional outbursts?
* Does the leader physically abuse followers?
* Does the leader drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes while
extolling the virtues of renunciation?
* Does the leader financially exploit followers by expecting them to
live in poverty while he or she indulges in luxury?
* Is the group or leader's driveway habitually filled with luxury cars
while ordinary people find him or her inaccessible and unreachable?
* Does the leader ever encourage deception or use deception as a
"technique"to trick followers into so-called correct thinking and
* Codependent behavior by a spiritual teacher should be a warning sign
of danger. Codependency includes: obsessively trying to control
others; allowing people to hurt and use them; lack of clear
boundaries; being reactive, not proactive; tunnel visioned; obsessive
worrying and denial; expectations of perfection and suppression of
human needs. (Beattie, Beyond Codependency, Harper/Hazelden, 1989).
6. Are questions and doubts permitted within the organization?
* A healthy spiritual environment must engage individual followers at
their level of experience and should encourage them to feel and think
and therefore question their beliefs and exercise good
decision-making. In this way, the follower can investigate,
discriminate, and test the dogma and the environment they are being
asked to accept, between what his or her personal issues are and what
might be an unhealthy environment. If intense pressure is used to
dissuade people who wish to talk with former members or critics, it is
a clear sign of information control. Controlling information is one of
the most essential components of mind control.
7. Is the organization open or closed?
* Are there organizational secrets?
* Are there "in"groups and "out"groups?
* Are there restricted teachings for initiates only?
* Are there secret texts and publications "for your eyes onlyÓ?
* Is there real financial accountability?
* If a group says that you can look at its accounting records, does it
actually provide access? The only way to know is to ask to see the
records. If you are afraid to ask, what does this say about the
atmosphere of the group?
8. What structural checks and balances exist within the organization
to prevent abuse of power?
* Are there divisive sectarian biases, even in the name of
interdenominational ecumenicism and universality?
* Is there an independent "ethics" committee to challenge and change
policies of the group?
* If there are abuses or injustices, what structure exists to correct
* Can anyone legitimately question the actions of the leader without
threat of emotional withdraw or fear of expulsion to "hell"?
* Do the rich and powerful get preferential treatment?
* Are "indulgences"(spiritual pardons) sold?
* Is there a "Sicilian"code of silence against unethical behavior of
Ways to evaluate a group's control over personal freedom
[From Chapter Four of Combatting Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press,
1990) by Steven Hassan]
Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic
components, which form the acronym BITE:
I. Behavior Control
II. Information Control
III. Thought Control
IV. Emotional Control
These four components are guidelines. Not all groups do every
aspect or do them extremely. What matters most is the overall impact on a
person's free will and ability to make real choices. A person's uniqueness,
talents, skills, creativity, and free will should be encouraged, not
suppressed. Destructive mind control seeks to "make people over"in the
image of the cult leader. This process has been described as "cloning".
This "cult identity"is the result of a systematic process to dissociate a
person from his or her previous identity including important beliefs and
values as well as significant relationships. The result is the creation of
a dual identity, what I refer to "John-John"and "John cult-member".
I. Behavior Control
1. Regulation of individual's physical reality
a. Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
b. What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
c. What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
d. How much sleep the person is able to have
e. Financial dependence
f. Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations
2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group
3. Need to ask permission for major decisions
4. Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors
5. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques- positive and
5. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
6. Rigid rules and regulations
7. Need for obedience and dependency
II. Information Control
1. Use of deception
a. Deliberately holding back information
b. Distorting information to make it acceptable
c. Outright lying
2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged
a.Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
b. Critical information
d.Keep members so busy they don't have time to think
3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
a.Information is not freely accessible
b.Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
c. Leadership decides who "needs to know"what
4. Spying on other members is encouraged
a.Pairing up with "buddy"system to monitor and control
b.Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
5. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
a.Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
b. Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult
6. Unethical use of confession
a.Information about "sins"used to abolish identity boundaries
b. Past "sins"used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness or
III. Thought Control
1. Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "Truth"
a. Map = Reality
b. Black and White thinking
c. Good vs. evil
d. Us vs. them (inside vs. outside)
2. Adopt "loaded"language (characterized by "thought-terminating cliches").
Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special"words constrict
rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of
experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words".
3. Only "good"and "proper"thoughts are encouraged.
4. Thought-stopping techniques (to shut down "reality testing"by stopping
"negative"thoughts and allowing only "good"thoughts); rejection of rational
analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism.
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
e. Speaking in "tongues"
f. Singing or humming
5. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as
6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful
IV. Emotional Control
1. Manipulate and narrow the range of a person's feelings.
2. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always
their fault, never the leader's or the group's.
3. Excessive use of guilt
a. Identity guilt
1. Who you are (not living up to your potential)
2. Your family
3. Your past
4. Your affiliations
5. Your thoughts, feelings, actions
b. Social guilt
c. Historical guilt
4. Excessive use of fear
a. Fear of thinking independently
b. Fear of the "outside"world
c. Fear of enemies
d. Fear of losing one's "salvation"
e. Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group f. Fear of
5. Extremes of emotional highs and lows.
6. Ritual and often public confession of "sins".
7. Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving
the group or even questioning the leader's authority. The person under mind
control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the
a. No happiness or fulfillment "outside"of the group
b. Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: "hell"; "demon
possession"; "incurable diseases"; "accidents"; "suicide"; "insanity";
"10,000 reincarnations"; etc.
c. Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends, peers,
d. Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group's perspective,
people who leave are: "weak"; "undisciplined"; "unspiritual";
"worldly"; "brainwashed by family, counselors"; seduced by money, sex,
rock and roll.
Back to the introductory index in this document | Back to the Main Page
The Three Stages of Gaining Control of the Mind
[Adapted from Kurt Lewin's three-stage model as described in Coercive
Persuasion (Norton, 1961) by Edgar Schein]
a. Disorientation / confusion
b. Sensory deprivation and/or sensory overload
c. Physiological manipulation
1. Sleep deprivation
2. Privacy deprivation
3. Change of diet
1. Age regression
3. Story-telling and metaphors
4. Linguistic double binds, use of suggestion
5. Meditation, chanting, praying, singing
e. Get person to question self identity
f. Redefine individual's past (implant false memories, forget positive
memories of the past)
a. Creation and imposition of new "identity"done step by step
1. Formally within indoctrination sessions
2. Informally by members, tapes, books, etc.
b. Use of Behavior Modification techniques
1. Rewards and punishments
2. Use of thought-stopping techniques
3. Control of environment
c. Mystical manipulation
d. Use of hypnosis and other mind-altering techniques
1. Repetition, monotony, rhythm
2. Excessive chanting, praying, decreeing, visualizations
e. Use of confession and testimonials
a. New identity reinforced, old identity surrendered
1. Separate from the past; decrease contact or cut off friends
2. Give up meaningful possessions and donate assets
3. Start doing cult activities: recruit, fundraise, move in with
b. New name, new clothing, new hairstyle, new language, new "family"
c. Pairing up with new role models, buddy system
d. Indoctrination continues: Workshops, retreats, seminars, individual
studies, group activities
Remember, cult mind control does not erase the person's old
identity, but rather creates a new one to suppress the old identity
(John-John and John-cult).
Back to the introductory index
[Adapted from Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of
Totalism (Norton, 1961) (now reprinted by the University of North Carolina
Dr. Lifton's work was the outgrowth of his studies for military
intelligence of Mao Tse-Tung's "thought-reform programs"commonly known as
"brainwashing."In Chapter 22, Lifton outlines eight criteria for when any
environment can be understood as exercising "thought-reform"or mind
Lifton wrote that any group has some aspects of these points.
However, if an environment has all eight of these points and implements
them in the extreme, then there is unhealthy thought reform taking place.
1. Milieu control Environment control and the control of human
communication. Not just communication between people but communication
within people's minds to themselves.
2. Mystical manipulation Everyone is manipulating everyone, under
the belief that it advances the "ultimate purpose."Experiences are
engineered to appear to be spontaneous, when, in fact, they are contrived
to have a deliberate effect. People misattribute their experiences to
spiritual causes when, in fact, they are concocted by human beings.
3. Loading the language Controlling words help to control
people's thoughts. A totalist group uses totalist language to make reality
compressed into black or white;" thought-terminating clichs."Non-members
cannot simply understand what believers are talking about. The words
constrict rather than expand human understanding.
4. Doctrine over person No matter what a person experiences, it
is the belief of the dogma which is important. Group belief supersedes
conscience and integrity.
5. The Sacred Science The group's belief is that their dogma is
absolutely scientific and morally true. No alternative viewpoint is
allowed. No questions of the dogma are permitted.
6. The Cult of Confession The environment demands that personal
boundaries are destroyed and that every thought, feeling, or action that
does not conform with the group's rules be confessed; little or no privacy.
7. The demand for purity The creation of a guilt and shame milieu
by holding up standards of perfection that no human being can accomplish.
People are punished and learn to punish themselves for not living up to the
8. The dispensing of existence The group decides who has a right
to exist and does not. There is no other legitimate alternative to the
group. In political regimes, this permits state executions. Hopefully, this
summary will motivate you to read the entire Chapter 22 and possibly the
entire book. It is considered to be one of the most important descriptions
of political mind-control programs. It is also important to note, that now
there are 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation mind-control groups and the patterns
have evolved and become more refined and sophisticated.
Back to the introductory index
This booklet was prepared by Steven Hassan with Lama Surya Das.
If you wish to contact us regarding counseling, workshops, or seminars,
please do so at:
PO Box 686
Boston MA 02258
We are both interested in your comments, suggestions, and criticisms. This
work will most likely evolve and become more refined and helpful.
Steven Hassan is one of America's leading exit counselors. He has been
involved in educating the public about destructive cults in America for
over nineteen years. He is a licensed mental health counselor and holds a
Master's degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College. In 1988,
he authored the critically acclaimed book Combatting Cult Mind Control: The
#1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive
Cults (Park Street Press, 1990). It is also available in Spanish, French,
German, Japanese with other language texts being prepared. He has appeared
on "60 Minutes"and "Nightline"discussing these matters.
Lama Surya Das is an American meditation teacher, poet, Buddhist scholar,
translator, and social activist. He is the author of The Snow Lion's
Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales From Tibet (Harper San Francisco, 1992) and is
editor/translator of Natural Great Perfection by Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche
(Snow Lion Publications, 1995). Founder of the Dzogchen Foundation, based
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he conducts meditation retreats worldwide and
organizes the Western Buddhist Meditation Teachers Conference with the